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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 27th September 2013

We all make mistakes. What matters is not the mistake but what you do about it. If Richard Nixon had come straight out and said he’d joked about bugging the Democrats never thinking his staff would take him seriously, he’d be remembered as the US president who opened relations with China. If Chris Huhne had accepted his speeding offence, he’d still be in line to become LibDem leader. How a person or organisation responds to errors tells you a lot about them.

While I was writing about the difference between the media’s approach to the Centre for Social Justice’s recent report and that from Release it occurred to me that I might be guilty of taking a different approach to the two myself.

I looked at the CSJ report and followed a couple of references to find that the data could not be presented the way the CSJ was doing thus undermining its arguments. I had not, however, done the same to the document from Release. So, I thought I should.

And, I found an error. On page 16 there is Figure 1, ‘Percentage of 16 to 59 year olds reporting use of illicit drugs in the last year by ethnicity, 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales’ (CSEW). The citation leads to a page on the Home Office part of the government website listing eight Excel spreadsheets of data from the CSEW 2011/12. I looked at all eight and only the fifth, ‘Illicit drug use by demographics tables Drug Misuse Declared: Findings from the 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales’, contains any data about ethnicity.

The bar in the chart for the figure shows last year prevalence amongst blacks as 5.4% but the spreadsheet gives a figure of 6.2%. Could Release be trying to understate drug use by blacks to increase the discrepancy between drug use and being criminalised for it that is part of its argument? Actually, no. The 5.4% relates to total non-white prevalence.

I contacted Niamh Eastwood of Release and she rechecked the workings and confirmed the error. And then she had the figure re-drawn and the revised report published so that if you follow the link I gave above you won’t be able to see what I mean.

At the same time, I contacted the Centre for Social Justice to ask why it was making comparisons between drug deaths in the UK and Germany based on EMCDDA figures that EMCDDA itself said were not comparable. I wrote about this on 1st September.

The CSJ, if it were interested in the truth, could have said it had made a mistake and changed its report. Or, it could have tried to argue that though the direct numerical comparison might be unjustified it believed the underlying truth was valid. It did neither of those things. It just completely ignored my enquiry.

Those who aren’t willing to engage in a discussion about the figures they use when those figures cannot be traced back to the claimed primary source can have no complaint if people conclude the authors have started with the conclusions they wish to promote and then sought to build the evidence to justify those conclusions.

It seems that the CSJ has got its hands on a copy of WayForward Technologies’ program ‘Reason’,

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